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What We Know So Far – NBC Chicago

Chicago doctors say that while there are still a lot of unknowns with omicron’s new COVID variant, “what we do know is concerning.” But how worried should you be?

“All we know is really basic science,” said Dr. Emily Landon, infectious disease specialist and chief epidemiologist at the University of Chicago Medicine. “This means we know the sequence of the virus and it means we can tell what the spike protein looks like compared to what the usual spike protein looks like. Mutations in the spike protein are cause for concern. ‘between them are the same that made the delta variant very, very transmissible. There are also additional changes in the spike protein that we see in the beta variant and the lambda variant. These are the two that we believe , could bypass immunity to the vaccine. ”

But according to Landon, “it’s not all or nothing.”

“It’s important to know that just because we are seeing these changes and these are changes that we have previously recorded as being consistent or going hand in hand with less vaccine immunity, the vaccine not being as good or being more susceptible to spread faster and easier from person to person, doesn’t necessarily mean that this particular virus is going to take over and be the more common variant when it does, “she said. ” We do not know yet. “

Dr Sharon Welbel, director of hospital epidemiology and infection control at Cook County Health, said experts in South Africa quickly sounded the alarm, which could lead to a better response.

“South African researchers disseminated this information very quickly around the world,” Welbel said. “Now we have researchers all over the world studying this. ”

Chicago is already preparing for the variant to be detected in the United States and the city, although it is not known how quickly it could spread.

“When you put so many different variations or types of changes into a virus, sometimes it doesn’t work very well. And just because we’re seeing cases in South Africa doesn’t mean this virus will be in good enough shape. or good enough to replace or do better than Delta, ”Landon said. “So far, delta has been the most effective variant of this virus and lambda, beta – the other two that appear to have been at higher risk of vaccine breakout – haven’t really done so. They can’t. really make a dent in the delta because the delta is so much faster, so much more efficient … and so we don’t know for omicron, whether or not he will be able to take over, well delta is already there. “

In a statement on Monday, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr Allison Arwady said the city was “very engaged in extensive discussions regarding the omicron variant of the COVID-virus. 19, in particular with our federal partners “.

“At this point, there are many questions that scientists around the world and in the Chicago Department of Public Health are actively trying to answer while keeping a close watch on this strain,” the statement said. “As this work continues, we as a city, and especially as individuals, must continue to follow public health guidelines: get vaccinated and, if vaccinated, get a booster; wear a face mask. indoors and when you are with other people; and if you feel sick, stay home to save lives. Unvaccinated people are most at risk for themselves and others, so get vaccinated soon as possible.

Likewise, the Cook County Health Department said on Friday it was monitoring the variant “very carefully.”

“We don’t know if the variant has reached the United States, but given global concern over the virus, it’s more important than ever to continue to follow public health recommendations: mask yourself, wash yourself. hands, stay physically away and most importantly, get vaccinated and receive your booster as soon as you are eligible, ”said Dr Rachel Rubin, Co-Head and Chief Medical Officer of the Cook County Public Health Department . “The longer people do not get vaccinated, the greater the risk of fatal variants.”

The global risk of omicron is “very high,” the World Health Organization said on Monday, as more countries reported cases of the variant which has raised concerns around the world that there is more pandemic suffering to come.

Despite the global alarm, it is still difficult to understand the variant and how virulent it can be.

The World Health Organization announced last week that omircon has been classified as a “variant of concern.”

Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, technical manager of the WHO COVID-19 Health Emergency Program, said early evidence on omicron, known by technical term B.1.1.529, shows the variant has a large number of mutations, some of which have characteristics of concern.

Omicron has also been shown to have an increased risk of re-infection compared to other highly transmissible variants, indicating that people who have contracted COVID and have recovered may be more likely to catch it again with this variant.

Leading US infectious disease expert Dr Anthony Fauci added that public health experts are trying to find answers to questions such as whether the omicron variant causes more severe disease and whether it can escape protection against vaccines or treatments.

The symptoms associated with the new variant were described as “extremely mild” by the doctor who first raised concerns about the new strain. Dr Angelique Coetzee, president of the South African Medical Association, told the BBC on Sunday she started seeing patients earlier this month with “unusual symptoms” that are slightly different from those associated with the variant. delta.

“It actually started with a male patient who was about 33 years old … and he told me he had just finished [been] extremely tired the last few days and he has body aches and headaches, ”she told the BBC.

The patient did not have a sore throat, she said, but rather a “itchy throat” but no cough or loss of taste or smell – symptoms that have been associated with previous strains. of the coronavirus.

“The thing is, you won’t be able to tell the difference between omicron, delta lambda, plain COVID from the start,” Landon said. “The flu or even the common rhinovirus causes most of our colds in the winter. You won’t know the difference between these if you just look at your symptoms. For a lot of people, these symptoms overlap. have certain parts of the Venn diagram like taste, loss of taste and smell, or common COVID than those other things, there’s a lot of overlap. You just won’t know, especially at the start of a disease, what kind of disease you have. You have to get tested. “

But getting tested won’t necessarily tell you if you have the omicron variant, Landon said.

“When you take a COVID test, they’re just looking to see whether or not you have COVID,” she said. “They’re not on what type to determine the exact strain of COVID. You have to do this thing called sequencing, which takes a lot longer. It’s a lot more intensive. You sure can’t get that back in 24 hours, and this is only done by specialized laboratories. “

The extent of the actual spread of the omicron variant around the world remains uncertain, however, as countries discover new cases every day.

Scientists from several places – from Hong Kong to Europe to North America – have confirmed its presence.

Canada’s health minister said the country’s first two cases of omicron were found in Ontario after two people who recently traveled from Nigeria tested positive.

The United States has yet to identify any cases, but Fauci and other experts have warned he may have already been to America.

Chicago officials say while he may not yet be in the city, he will likely be detected.

“We have no reason to believe at the moment that omicron is here, but given the way this virus and its variants spread, I think we have to assume that it will get here at some point,” a said Lightfoot. “We’re still seeing overwhelmingly that the variant that’s here in Chicago remains the Delta variant, but we have to take into account what we’re seeing around the world.

Moderna chief medical officer Paul Burton said on Sunday the vaccine maker may roll out a reformulated vaccine against the omicron coronavirus variant early next year.

The vaccine maker has “mobilized hundreds” of workers starting Thursday morning over Thanksgiving to begin researching the new variant, the company said in a statement.

Current vaccines might provide some protection, depending on when a person was injected, Burton said. Still, he said unvaccinated people should get vaccinated or receive their booster shots, if they are eligible.

It is not clear whether new formulations will be needed or whether current COVID vaccinations will provide protection against the new variant.

“We had the same concern with the delta variant,” Welbel said. “And again, the pharmaceutical companies – at least Moderna and Pfizer – thought they might have to reformulate their vaccine, but it turns out that with the boosters, they seem to be working pretty well. Again, and when we speak to work, what I’m saying is that they work well to prevent serious illness and death. And so it could be that with [omicron]. I think in the meantime we really have to operate a bit at a level before we have vaccines available, which is not difficult. This is what we are already doing now. We have to mask ourselves when we are inside, we have to maintain a physical distance that we are capable of, we have to test and monitor. “

According to Landon, there is no need to panic yet.

“I think it’s a cause for concern, not a cause for panic,” she said. “There is still a lot to learn and I personally am not convinced that this is going to be some kind of doomsday variation. Obviously, there might be new information that might change my mind on this.”

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